In Brief

Will Gulf Nations Tip the Balance in Sudan Crisis?

Gulf powers have lined up behind Sudan’s ruling military council. Where Sudan goes from here could depend on whether other powers play a countervailing role.

Sudan is at a critical juncture in the wake of President Omar al-Bashir’s ouster, with activists and the military facing off over whether Sudan will be a democracy. Support from the Gulf countries could tip the balance toward military rule.

A Power Struggle in Khartoum

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Since military commanders ousted Bashir in April, the culmination of months-long protests, pro-democracy activists calling themselves the Alliance of Freedom and Change have demanded civilian rule. They argue that the ruling Transitional Military Council is just a continuation of Bashir’s repressive thirty-year regime.

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In early June, after negotiations between the two sides had stalled, security forces and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF)—the successor to the Janjaweed militia, which carried out atrocities in Sudan’s Darfur region—massacred demonstrators taking part in a sit-in outside the army’s headquarters in Khartoum. At least 128 protesters have been killed, and hundreds more wounded, according to the local doctors’ association.

The military council said it would hold elections within nine months. But protest leaders fear that without enough time for political parties to organize, the military could consolidate its rule at the ballot box.

Protesters gathered outside the army headquarters in Khartoum shortly after President Omar al-Bashir's ouster in April.
Protesters gathered outside the army headquarters in Khartoum shortly after President Omar al-Bashir's ouster in April. Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images

The Gulf’s Playbook

The United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt have all lined up behind the military council. They had encouraged the military to push Bashir aside, the Associated Press reported, after it became clear he couldn’t tamp down the protests.

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Since then, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia—Gulf monarchies that experts say have worked to subvert democratic movements in the region ever since the 2011 Arab uprisings—have sought to empower the generals. They promised the transitional government $3 billion in aid, including funds to stabilize its currency, as well as food, medicine, and fuel.

The International Crisis Group describes their moves as an attempt to shepherd Sudan “from one military-led regime to another,” following a familiar playbook in which the Gulf states use their oil wealth to support friendly authoritarian governments and defuse popular movements. In 2014 they backed Egyptian Defense Secretary Abdel Fatah al-Sisi in his ouster of President Mohammed Morsi; Sisi has now joined the Gulf in backing Sudan’s military council. Sudanese activists saw the Khartoum massacre as a replay of the 2013 mass killings of Egyptian demonstrators.

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Sudanese security forces take security measurements as Deputy Head of Sudan's Transitional Military Council, General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo addresses local authority representatives in Khartoum, Sudan on June 18, 2019.
Security forces listen as General Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo addresses local authorities in Khartoum in mid-June. Omer Erdem/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Regional Rivalries

The Gulf states’ relations with Bashir had been strained for years. Experts say they now hope to bring Sudan fully into their camp in their regional rivalries with Qatar, Turkey, and Iran, and head off democratic change, which they fear could bring Islamists to power and encourage their own citizens to agitate for political participation.

But underneath these common interests are divisions. The UAE has backed the RSF, whose leader, Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemeti, is also the military council’s second in command. His forces are fighting as mercenaries in the Gulf’s campaign in Yemen, and they were reported to be the most active in putting down the Khartoum sit-in. Egypt, however, fearing prolonged instability across its borders, is looking to the more professional Sudanese Armed Forces for a leader in Sisi’s mold.

 Sudanese protesters open their smartphones lights as they gather for a "million-strong" march outside the army headquarters in the capital Khartoum on April 25, 2019.
Protesters gathered for a “million-strong march” outside the army headquarters in April, demanding that the ruling military council relinquish power. Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images

What’s Next?

With the popular mobilization on the back foot since security forces broke up the sit-in, the democracy movement now hopes for international support. Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, has taken on the role of mediator, but proposals for power-sharing between civilians and the military have faltered.

The United Kingdom has for months called for democracy in Sudan; the United States has only recently entered the picture. Last week it named Ambassador Donald Booth as special envoy for Sudan, and he joined Tibor Nagy, the top U.S. diplomat for Africa policy, for talks with both sides in Khartoum. Washington has also called on the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt to press the military council to exercise restraint.

A Sudanese protester flashes the V for victory signr during a sit-in outside the army headquarters in the capital Khartoum on April 30, 2019.
A protester at the army headquarters sit-in in April. Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images

While negotiations continue, it is becoming clear that the outcome in Sudan will depend in no small part on the diplomatic weight Washington brings to bear not just in Khartoum, but also in Abu Dhabi and Riyadh.

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